City announces plan to exterminate squirrels in Cesar Chavez Park

Walter Zarnowitz/Staff

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To some students, squirrels may just be a nuisance in front of Dwinelle Hall — but to the city of Berkeley, the rodents are a biohazard.

Squirrels and gophers occupy Cesar Chavez Park, a former landfill near the Berkeley Marina, and burrow tunnels that could potentially funnel toxic waste into the bay. In order to prevent a potential toxic disaster, the city announced a pilot plan to tail off their pest problem by trapping and exterminating a portion of the population.

A “clay cap” layer currently prevents the toxic waste underneath Cesar Chavez Park — now perforated with holes — from leaking into the bay. But while seeking shelter from the elements or dogs, squirrels and gophers tend to burrow into the soil, and their tunnels are inching closer to breaching the cap.

Terry Seward, a supervising engineer of the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Resources Control Board, warns that if the cap is punctured, waste — such as gasoline, lead, iron, herbicides and pesticides — could flow into the bay. But Seward noted that the root of the problem isn’t the rodents but the people who feed them.

“Even though there are signs posted not to feed them, there are peanut shells everywhere,” Seward said. “They’re supplying the squirrels with an extra food source, making the population artificially high.”

The city intends to cordon off an acre of the park and lay baited traps to capture the rodents, who will then be “abated,” or exterminated. Depending on the pilot program’s effectiveness, the city will consider options for all 90 acres of the still-contaminated former landfill.

Matthai Chakko, a city spokesperson, said it is the best option for the city. Since the Regional Water Quality Control Board ordered the city to control the squirrel population in 2009, Berkeley has tried other options — including attempting to attract natural predators, such as owls and raptors, to live in the park and hunt the rodents — but to no avail.

Relocation is also not an option; state law prohibits moving wildlife, and widespread poison could potentially affect “innocent” species.

“The bay, something important in our ecosystem, has to be kept safe,” Chakko said. “We need to stop the problem before it becomes an actual problem.”

Judy Luce, a Berkeley resident and regular visitor of the park, said she sympathized with the city’s situation. Luce shared the concerns of her 6-year-old granddaughter, Sadie, who said that if the waste gets into the bay, the toxins will affect other animals in the bay and the entire ocean — and then the people of the world.

“If (the squirrels) have to go, they have to go,” Luce said.

But not everyone at the park agreed with this utilitarian rationale. Noreen Poli, another Berkeley resident, said she is skeptical that abatement is the best policy and that those most responsible are the ones feeding the squirrels.

Arguing that there should be consequences put in place, Poli suggested implementing a fine or running a public service message on local television stations instead of taking what she called a “drastic” approach.

“People aren’t thinking about the dire consequences,” Poli said. “That is the real problem — people aren’t being educated enough.”

Contact Bo Kovitz at [email protected].